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‘Devil in a Blue Dress’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 29, 1995


Carl Franklin
Denzel Washington;
Jennifer Beals;
Tom Sizemore;
Don Cheadle;
Maury Chaykin
Under 17 restricted

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"Devil in a Blue Dress," Carl Franklin's stunning adaptation of Walter Mosley's 1990 mystery novel, is first-rate American pulp—fast, absorbing and substantive.

The movie also confirms Franklin as an efficient, tough-minded screenwriter with a compelling moral vision of the way the world works and the directorial talent to bring it to life. His work here is spare, lean and powerful—just as it was in his 1992 debut, "One False Move," and his magnificent 1993 miniseries "Laurel Avenue." He comes straight out of a tradition of straightforward narrative cinema that reaches back to Howard Hawks and John Huston, yet with a realistic social consciousness that gives his movies even greater depth and relevance. Right now, he's right up there with the best.

Set in Los Angeles in 1948, the movie begins innocently enough when a tough guy named Albright (Tom Sizemore) walks into a bar on the black side of town. Albright is a "fixer"—a guy who, for a certain price, "does favors for his friends." In this instance, his "friend" is a millionaire politician (Terry Kinney) who needs help tracking down his girlfriend, Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals). Normally, Albright would take care of the matter himself, but because he's white and the mysterious Daphne prefers the city's black honky-tonks and juke joints, he needs a black man to find her.

Which is where Easy Rawlins comes in. Easy (Denzel Washington) isn't a private detective; he's a working man. But because he just lost his job and is looking for a way to pay the mortgage on the little house he bought for himself when he returned from the war, he decides to accept Albright's offer of $100 to see what he can dig up on Daphne.

What Easy can't know, of course, is that mixing himself up with Daphne and Albright mixes him up in a web of frame-ups, extortion and murder involving the most corrupt and powerful figures in L.A. Though the story is challengingly intricate—far more so than would be possible to make sense of here—Franklin never loses control of it. To the contrary, few films are more assured in their storytelling or build more forcefully, irrevocably toward their resolution.

Still, Franklin never sacrifices depth for narrative momentum; nor does he allow that momentum to steamroll the beautifully detailed work of his cast. As Easy, Washington is more grounded and charismatic than he has ever been—not to mention sexy. Certainly, it's as tough a role as he's ever had to play, and it gives the star ample opportunity to demonstrate why he's one of the main reasons we still go to the movies.

Washington makes Mosley's colloquial urban chatter sound edgy and spontaneous, like a jazz musician's improvisations. But if Washington's performance is rounded and melodic, like a ballad, the one given by Don Cheadle, as Easy's hair-trigger sidekick, Mouse, is jagged and rough, like hard bop. Now try to imagine that in addition, the character is darkly, scarily funny, and you may begin to understand just how cool a performance this is.

Franklin gets the same kind of quality from his other supporting players, especially Sizemore and Lisa Nicole Carson, who plays Daphne's friend Coretta. As Daphne, Beals is the movie's weakest link. Still, because she is missing for most of the film, her just-adequate performance doesn't hurt much.

The film's principal virtue, though, is its sense of reality—in particular the reality of segregated Los Angeles in the '40s. No Hollywood film that I can remember gives such a vivid portrait of everyday black life, or makes such a dramatic connection between the hope that is evident on the streets of Easy's neighborhood and the despair we've seen in the films that capture those same streets 40 years later. Franklin has said that, ultimately, "Devil in a Blue Dress" is about the American dream—something filmmakers often say when hyping their films. But in this case, it's not hype.

Devil in a Blue Dress is rated R.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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